Anchoring, The $5 Ask And Other Fundraising Mind Games

Nov 1, 2014

News Analysis — One of the best-known sayings about politics is missing something. In a 1985 speech at Yale University, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo said, “We campaign in poetry, but when we’re elected, we’re forced to govern in prose.”

But that formulation omits one of the dominant aspects of modern politics: fundraising. Intermingled with campaigning in poetry and governing in prose, one might charitably say candidates raise money in the language of sales and marketing. Less charitably, one might say they fundraise in psychological manipulation.

For better and worse, political campaigns have caught up to the marketing techniques that private enterprise has been using for years. Micro-targeting, price anchoring and a remarkable precision of language have, from a financial standpoint, been good for candidates. But is it good for our political system?

My gut instinct is to answer with an unequivocal no. But as with so many things in politics and life, the evidence demands a more nuanced reaction.

If you’re on the email lists of Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn or Republican candidate Bruce Rauner, you’re getting multiple messages a day. The pitches come at a frantic pace, with the charm of a 9-1-1 call and the sincerity of an appliance salesman fighting to keep his job.

“Midnight tonight is the final fundraising deadline of the campaign,” wrote Quinn campaign manager Lou Bertuca on a Wednesday in mid-October. Which is funny, because two weeks earlier, at the end of September, the governor himself wrote to say, “The final fundraising deadline of this campaign is just a few hours away.”

The opening is followed by some text about the latest debate or an attack by Rauner — blah, blah, blah, it must not be important because you have to scan a few paragraphs before you get to a line in boldface type: “If you’re with me, chip in $5 or more now.” This is what professional fundraisers call “the ask.” The Quinn campaign “asks” have the consistency of a creed: The verb is “chip in.” The amount is $5. Sometimes you can click on the ask. Other times the web address is separate.

The Rauner campaign emails are just as formulaic, though in a different way. “President [Barack] Obama is coming back AGAIN to try to rescue Pat Quinn from defeat,” Rauner wrote me. The next day, campaign manager Chip Englander wrote, “Pat Quinn is PULLING OUT ALL THE STOPS. We just learned that Vice President Joe Biden is coming to Chicago next week to help Pat Quinn.” Aside from the SHOUTING, Rauner’s messages are plainly formatted. That makes it easier to see the full sentences and paragraphs that are colored links: “Could you help give us another boost with $100, $250, $500, $1,000, $2,500, or even $5,000?” On occasion, the amounts are not multiples of five, and even more rarely they’re just asking for a single figure, such as $10. But by-and-large they include the laundry list of price options.

This is called anchoring, and it’s a common technique in marketing and fundraising. Spending hundreds of dollars on a blender doesn’t seem quite as absurd if the store also displays a model that costs more than $1,000. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains the phenomenon in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow. He describes an experiment in which visitors to a museum were asked how much they’d be willing to donate annually “to save 50,000 offshore Pacific Coast seabirds from small offshore oil spills.” Some visitors were asked if they’d pay $5, others $400, and others were given no suggested amount. Kahneman writes that those without an anchor said they’d make a $64 donation, while those with the $5 anchor said they’d make $20 gifts. “When the anchor was a rather extravagant $400, the willingness to pay rose to an average of $143,” he writes.

Rauner’s technique of listing a set of suggested contributions has also been used in emails from the national Democratic Party. Political scientist Michael Miller says, until recently, that’s been the industry standard. Miller has written two books on campaign finance, and this year left the University of Illinois Springfield to teach at Barnard College in Manhattan. “You always give people a choice, and you start with a small contribution,” Miller says. “Then you make sure that you get it all the way up to the maximum contribution, so that you can get whatever you can get.”

Miller says campaigns have become adept at field-testing these messages, with presidential campaigns testing hundreds of solicitations to find the most effective. He says the varied approaches in Quinn’s and Rauner’s appeals could be rooted in partisan differences. Or perhaps Quinn is using the $5 amount as a way to contrast with Rauner’s wealth and the millions of dollars the Republican has contributed to his own campaign. Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin is also using the $5 ask in his emails, but like Quinn, he too is running against a wealthy Republican businessman: state Sen. Jim Oberweis. Oberweis, incidentally, has joined Rauner in listing several dollar amounts in his appeals.

“If you’re seeing a partisan break, it very well could be that the Obama campaign successfully employed this language in 2012,” Miller says. “The Obama campaign is industry standard … for field-testing solicitations and then going with the effective ones.” Miller says the precise language of the fundraising appeal — “chip in $5” versus “give $5, $10, $20,” et cetera — is less important than the message around it, which I previously dismissed as the “blah blah blah” of the email.

“Maybe I have information that this particular donor is really interested in education policy, so I’ll send a message about that,” Miller says. “I could be appealing to their sense of fear or anger: ‘If you don’t donate, we’re going to lose this election, and really terrible things will happen.’” Miller also says there’s evidence of ways in which campaigns should not ask for money: “If you say, ‘Isn’t the economy terrible? Let’s get the economy turned around,’ that’s not going to be an effective appeal. People will think, ‘Well yeah, the economy is terrible. Maybe I should hold on to my money.’”

Recent research has shown that the tone of messages is important, too. Todd Rogers of Harvard and Don Moore of the University of California, Berkeley, found that a message along the lines of “the race is close, but we’re losing” yielded 55 percent more money than emails saying a candidate is barely winning. “When leaders convey under-confidence to their supporters, they have a motivating effect that is similar to athletes being barely behind at halftime in a close sporting match: It summons increased effort since victory is just within reach,” Rogers and Moore write.

I asked both the Rauner and Quinn campaigns about their fundraising appeals. Rauner spokesman Mike Schrimpf wrote back to say his campaign doesn’t detail its fundraising strategy, “but I can tell you that Bruce has received more than 27,000 donations since the beginning of the campaign and we are running the largest grassroots campaign on the Republican side in Illinois history.”

Of course, Rauner’s greatest support has come from his own fortune — he’s given his campaign more than $17 million as of press time. I’d like to tell you whether Quinn can boast comparable grassroots fundraising success, but his spokeswomen did not respond to my inquiries.

Big data and evidence-based decisionmaking have been around for years in business, sports and other fields. Politicians have been slow to embrace the techniques, until President Barack Obama twice used them to rewrite the political map of the United States. But I cannot help feeling uncomfortable about the change. Should a politician making a case to voters behave no differently than a corporation making a case to buyers of laundry detergent?

“I think we have to avoid our temptation to be afraid of this,” Miller tells me. “Companies do this to us every day. If you’re on Facebook, you’re being watched.” Different users see different ads based on their interests, and Miller says bringing that to politics is good for our system of government.

“Think of it this way: If I don’t know anything about the audience I’m talking to, I have to speak in broad, abstract terms,” Miller says. “But if I have a pretty good idea of what the people I’m speaking to want to hear, then I think we’re both better off.” A politician gets to make her case to a potential voter or contributor, who in turn gets to hear about an issue he cares about. Miller calls that a high-quality interaction, and says even if the voter does not ultimately support the candidate, at least they’ve had a chance at mutual understanding.

That, however, assumes a higher level of conversation than I’ve seen in this campaign. From Rauner’s SCARE CAPS to Durbin’s infelicitously termed “moneybomb goal,” the discourse has been elevated to the heights of a Chicago pothole.

Of course, after the web links urging supporters to “chip-in $5” or “even $1,000 or $2,500,” there’s usually one last link that could well be a more satisfying investment: “unsubscribe.”

Illinois Issues, November 2014